China is now an active member of the world economic and political community. Relative affluence and greater personal freedom exist for many, even as other Chinese citizens are racked by the travails of modernization. Many anticipate that China's entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO) will speed these trends along and may even precipitate fundamental and legal political change.
Although forward momentum will be slower than many anticipate, the changes exacted by WTO membership will be profound because China's future will be dictated or determined more than ever before by factors beyond Beijing's control. Moreover, WTO membership will not only prevent backsliding but will raise fundamental questions about national sovereignty and powerful debates about the amount of foreign engagement China is willing to tolerate.
The impact will go beyond economics to affect, deeply, social and political life. Although some analysts produced doomsday scenarios about increasing unrest from rising unemployment and inequality, liberal intellectuals in China welcome membership in anticipation of a more rule-bound and democratic political order. In reality, entry will push forward trends set in motion well before China joined the WTO. The demise of the old economic order will be hastened while the emerging private enterprise and new sectors will become ever more privileged.
In the social realm, WTO entry will increase inequality and the restructuring of the labor force into extremes of wealth and poverty. In this process, the concentration of foreign direct investment (FDI) along the coasts will also continue to exacerbate regional inequalities.